Although the death of a spouse is more common for women than for men, a man's chance of becoming a widower increases as he ages. According to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2001, approximately 3 percent of the men capable of marriage are widowed compared to 12 percent of the women. These proportions increase dramatically, however, among those sixty-five years of age and older (14% men versus 45% women) and even more so among those aged eighty-five and older where 43 percent of the men are widowers (compared to 80% of the women).

Often the widower experience is examined in light of similarities and differences between them and their female counterparts. Although there is a natural tendency to draw comparisons between widows and widowers, some features of "widowerhood" are unique and warrant special attention. It is also true that the course of bereavement among widowers is wrought with diversity and variability. The process of adaptation to the loss of their wives is rarely linear and is more aptly described as one of oscillation between good and bad days or even moments within a single day. Some cope more successfully than others who experience greater difficulty; however, there is a plethora of evidence that suggests that many ultimately demonstrate a high degree of resilience as time passes.

Oftentimes widowers' experiences are affected by a variety of factors, including their age, the relationship with their children, how well they are able to assume new responsibilities, and how much emotional and material support is available from others. Similarly, the loss of a wife can have adverse consequences on the widower's physical health. This too can vary depending on the widower's prior health, his lifestyle, and to what extent he possesses the skills he needs to take care of himself. Finally, while many widowers have the resources and skills that enable them to eventually cope and adapt on their own, a significant few turn to more formal sources of help. Widowers' motivation to seek assistance as well as the effectiveness of that help often is a product of their beliefs and expectations about how a man is to grieve and respond to loss.

What Widowers Experience

While women who lose their husbands often speak of feeling abandoned or deserted, widowers tend to express the loss as one of "dismemberment," as if they had lost something that kept them organized and whole. The Harvard Bereavement Study, a landmark investigation of spousal loss that took place in the Boston area during the late 1960s, reported that widowers often equated the death of their wives with the loss of their primary source of protection, support, and comfort. This went to the very core of their overall sense of wellbeing. It has been described as "being lost without a compass," usually due to their profound loneliness but also because widowers often depended on their wives for many things like managing the household, caring for their children, and being their only true confidant. This sense of being lost is more profound when widowers need help but have difficulty obtaining or even asking for it. They also can experience ambiguity about the emotions they are feeling and the uncertainty of how to express them.

Emotional response. Similar to widows, bereaved husbands experience an array of emotions, such as anger, shock (especially if the death is unexpected), numbness, denial, and profound sadness. Unlike widows, however, grieving men tend to control their emotions (with the possible exception of anger), for instance, by holding back and crying less openly. Widowers, more often than not, will channel their energy into active coping and problem-solving strategies like work, physical activity, or addressing disruptions in the household. At other times they may prefer to be alone with their thoughts, whether thinking about the circumstances surrounding their wife's death or reflecting on ways to cope with their new situation.

Widowers who experience the same emotions as widows but were raised with the belief that emotional control is a sign of strength often find themselves confronting an inner conflict about how to respond to a loss. The situation may instinctively call for a response that is emotional but the widower may not be socialized to express himself in that way. Adding to this confusion on the part of the widower is an assumption that there is only one way to grieve. Men usually express their feelings of grief in solitary ways, but this should not be construed as being any less intense than a widow's grief. At the same time, to a varying degree, some widowers express their emotions more openly than others, suggesting that while some responses may be more typical, any one widower's experience can be somewhat unique as well.

Mental health issues. Although not entirely conclusive, several studies suggest that widowers can be prone to depression after the death of their wives, especially when they are compared with their nonbereaved married counterparts. On average, married men are less likely than married women to be depressed. Most epidemiological studies report that marriage tends to be protective for men in terms of depression and other mental health problems, largely because a supportive marital relationship buffers them from the negative impact of the stress and strains of everyday life. Bereavement, therefore, is more depressing for many widowers because they, quite simply, have more to lose than widows. This is based on the assumption that a man's spouse is often his primary source of social support. Consequently, although a widower may have been more apt to express his thoughts and feelings to his wife when she was alive, he may be equally unlikely to be so open to others. Widows more frequently use alternative sources of support that can protect them more effectively from potentially adverse effects of the loss and other stressors.

In some studies, many widowers are more recently bereaved than the widows are, most often due to differences in life expectancy and remarriage rates between men and women. Men usually are widowed at a later age and are more likely to die before being bereaved for a long period of time. Younger widowers usually have more opportunities to remarry, whereas widowed women will have fewer options for remarriage and remain widowed longer. Because the most difficult time usually is early in the bereavement process, the widowers who participate in these studies will have had less time than the widows to adjust to the loss and more likely will report being depressed when they are interviewed. Not all research, however, supports the conclusion that widowers suffer more depression than widows. Many of the gender differences regarding depression and other mental health outcomes are largely unexplained and consequently are inconclusive.

The degree of difficulty that widowers face can be dependent on when in their own life the loss occurs. Although not necessarily true of everyone, many widowers whose wives die around the same time that they are retiring from their occupation (or soon thereafter) can be prone to more difficulty. Married couples often have expectations about how they intend to spend their retirement years together. Those expectations can be shattered as newly bereaved widowers suddenly find themselves facing retirement alone, which could be a source of depression or hopelessness. Conversely, men who are in their preretirement years might adapt more easily. They are typically still employed, could be more socially connected due to ties in the workplace, and might still have children in the home. Of course, these also can be potential sources of difficulty, particularly if relationships with children are strained or if assuming new responsibilities around the household interferes with the widower's effectiveness at work and elsewhere. Conversely, these life circumstances could represent a sense of feeling useful, involved, and being engaged in meaningful activity—all potential constructive coping mechanisms for the widower.

Health and Mortality among Widowers

Much of the research suggests that there is a greater prevalence of mortality and morbidity among the spousal bereaved compared to those who are currently married. Many of these same studies further report that the risk of becoming physically ill or dying soon after the loss of a spouse is greatest for widowers. The fact that men tend to be older when their spouses die could explain some of these findings. Although mortality is less common among younger widowers, the difference between their mortality rates and those of their married counterparts is greater than what is observed among older age groups, especially within the first six months of bereavement.

Why are some widowers at risk for illness and even death? One explanation is that married couples are exposed to the same environmental influences and often pursue similar lifestyles. If any of these have a negative impact on the health of one spouse, resulting in his or her death, a similar outcome could follow for the other. This explanation, however, fails to adequately explain the excess mortality observed among widowers compared to widows because the odds of illness and death would be similar for those whose health is similarly threatened. An alternative explanation involves the role of stress. Some believe that the degree of stress associated with spousal bereavement can suppress the immune system, rendering the bereaved more susceptible to disease and subsequent mortality unless they have adequate support to buffer the unhealthy effects of stress. Consequently, widowers who are unable to benefit from supportive relationships with others after their spouse's death can experience a potential negative impact on their health. Furthermore, some widowers respond to stress by engaging in unhealthy behaviors like smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and poor nutrition practices.

The health of widowers can suffer because they lack many of the skills that are important in self-care. Many tasks of daily living that are essential to health and well-being could go unaddressed by widowers if any of them were primarily the responsibility of their deceased wife. These could include meal preparation, shopping for adequate food, housekeeping, doing laundry, among other daily chores, all of which if left unattended for a long period of time are added sources of stress that could have adverse health consequences.

The division of labor concerning these tasks and skills tends to be defined according to gender, particularly among the older generations, but younger widowers often do not fare much better. Although many women participate in the workforce, they still are largely responsible for household management, cooking, and other tasks of daily living important for the care of the entire family. Widowers unskilled in these areas not only could find their health compromised for the reasons stated earlier, but also might feel less confident to meet the daily challenges of widowed life, which detracts from their ability to cope. Alternatively, those who learn to master many of these new responsibilities often cope more effectively and are at lower risk for poor health because they become more autonomous and eventually take better care of themselves.

How Well Widowers Adapt

Although not without its common elements, the process of adaptation to spousal loss can vary from individual to individual. While the most difficult times can be within the first six months to a year, some adapt more quickly whereas a few do not manage well for an extended period of time. Some characteristics, however, are associated with more successful adaptation. These include positive self-esteem, keeping busy with meaningful activity, having adequate opportunity for support and to share one's feelings, and a sense of being in control and confident in one's ability to cope effectively.

These attributes are largely independent of gender. The Harvard Bereavement Study, however, did make a distinction between social and emotional recovery. The widowers in that study adapted emotionally to the loss at similar pace to the widows, although their strategies may have differed. Alternatively, the men tended to move more quickly toward social recovery—that aspect of adaptation that refers to the need to reorganize one's life. This often was driven by the necessity to balance their role in the workplace with those pertaining to managing a household and caring for children. This was a source of strain for some of them that adversely impacted their effectiveness on the job and they felt compelled to find a way to alleviate it.

This need to reorganize sometimes predisposes widowed men to remarry. Many use remarriage as a way to fulfill their need for companionship and to resume an active sex life. Some, especially those who are younger, also believe remarriage once again provides a partner to help them meet the multiple responsibilities of being a worker, father, and head of household. Whether or not widowers eventually remarry, however, is not necessarily an indicator of how well they coped with the death of their former spouse. It is true that some of those who remarry report lower stress levels and greater life satisfaction, but nearly half of these remarriages dissolve, especially if they occur more quickly after the prior loss. Widowers who do not remarry are equally capable of maintaining meaningful relationships and adapting successfully to their new life.

Like any life transition, becoming a widower is associated with its own set of challenges and tasks that need to be successfully met in order to adapt effectively. At first, this can be highly disruptive, but as widowers have opportunities to learn the skills to meet these new challenges (whether managing a household, tending to their children's needs, assuming new self-care responsibilities, or becoming more comfortable with how they express their emotions), they develop a greater sense of coping ability and feel more confident to meet future challenges. Many bereaved men over time demonstrate a high degree of resilience and some grow personally from the experience. While most manage to accomplish this on their own, however, others require some assistance along the way.

Support Systems

Most bereaved rely on their own personal resources as well as the support of others in their lives for the means to adapt and do not require more formal assistance. For those experiencing greater difficulty, however, interventions like support groups and one-on-one programs can be effective, especially if accessed early in bereavement. While a small proportion of bereaved spouses in general participate in these programs, widowers as a rule are typically less receptive to them and often shy away from helping situations, at least at first. Consistent with their need to appear in control, especially regarding the display of their emotions, most widowers try to make it on their own even when they can benefit from outside help.

This is not to say that all widowers avoid participating in traditional bereavement interventions like self-help groups. Many, however, are not drawn to what they believe to be counseling interventions because they often perceive them as services designed primarily for women. Widowers are typically uncomfortable with environments where the open expression of emotion is encouraged because it is not consistent with their preferred way to grieve. Instead, researchers and practitioners suggest that bereaved men are more suited to active coping mechanisms that may include being engaged in meaningful activities. Programs that primarily feature such activities could have more appeal to widowers. Group walks and outings, for example, can be just as beneficial as traditional support groups because men who participate are able to interact and support one another in these situations and can do so more comfortably. Because the focus is on activity, however, as opposed to support or counseling itself, it is more consistent with many widowers' coping styles and is consequently less threatening. Because widowers use strategies that tend to be more cognitive than emotional in nature, they do well with books and other educational resources that help them help themselves.

Because of the unique problems widowers have assuming new responsibilities, they can benefit from programs that focus on skill-building and self-care education to help them successfully manage those tasks of daily living important to health, functioning, and independence. Issues of greater concern for widowers might include meal planning and preparation, housekeeping, and doing laundry. These programs can focus as well on more general health promotion topics like stress management, health screenings, immunizations, medication management, and physical activity, to name a few, that are equally relevant to widows and widowers but often go ignored or neglected by them given their new situation.

Although most bereavement programs have differential appeal to widowers, the benefits of participating vary from widower to widower. Success rate usually depends on the level of difficulty they are experiencing, what resources they already have in place, their needs, and their own unique situation. Interventions are not a panacea and most eventually cope without them. Although the strategies they choose at times might differ, widowers are as likely as widows to cope and eventually adapt to their new lives.

See also: Gender and Death ; Grief: Anticipatory, Traumatic ; Widows


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Internet Resources

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User Contributions:

I found this helpful to read. I fit and agree with some of the conclusions. In my case the process is tough because I've never cooked a darn thing and never did any "housework". My wife did it all. I've come to realize that just keeping things up outside is harder because of all the little things she did to make my outside maintenance easy. She was my closest friend as well as my wife. So, I'm lost and still trying to figure out what direction to go after 8 months since her future welfare isn't the key focus in my life.
David Jones
My wife passed away 6 weeks ago in a head-on automobile accident due to a DUI driver who passed out. We had the perfect marriage, almost 29 years and not 1 fight. We were extremely close and had a great relationship in every aspect. She was a Children's Minister and I helped out a lot with whatever she needed most at the time.
I just felt an intense grief at her loss that has just started to abate a bit but frequently returns. I have four children and I am carrying on with normal routines for their benefit. I have not felt any anger or regrets, just a deep sorrow that she is no longer here. I talk to her frequently and feel her presence at times. I visit her grave daily.
I have experienced a tremendous support from our congregation, neighbors, co-workers, and many others who my wife or I came into contact with over the years. The cemetery workers and stone mason worked hard for me and got her monument installed today, six days before our anniversary. I had her buried in the cemetery next to the church where we were married.
Every morning I wake up and miss her presence once again. Most nights I wake up between 3 and 4 in the morning and sometimes I manage to get some rest afterwards.
I went back to work after a couple of weeks and it has helped to pass the time and keep my mind busy. However I am not as mentally sharp as usually, probably due to the lack of sleep.
One thing nothing covers is all the paperwork that is involved with banks, insurance companies, retirement benefit programs, etc. These must be done in conjunction with the accident report, the death certificate, and then wait for the autopsy report and the amended death certificate. I only used an attorney to file the probate papers to get the house put in my name and officially probate the will. I am trying to do the rest myself, I’ll see how it goes.
The other driver was not insured and so I need to work through the uninsured motorist claim on my own policy. I'm finding out a lot but it's hard to deal with all of these things while grieving.
I do not plan on every re-marrying and will continue to wear my wedding ring just as I have the past 29 years.
My wife did some marvelous devotions over the past few months and those have helped me affirm my faith and believe that this was all part of God's plan, perhaps she had reached a point of spiritual perfection where she could not improve any further.
I am reading the last book she was reading when she died. I had to wipe the blood off the cover first, but it is very helpful, it's Spiritual Direction by Henri Nouwen.
I looked at all the cards she gave me in the past couple of years and ones she bought but had not yet given me, they are all so beautiful with short handwritten notes that give special meaning to our relationship.
I have one daughter at home (high school senior) and two sons in college. I will be going to see my sons on visits next month over "family weekends" scheduled by their universities, my daughter will also go along with me to visit her brothers and see their colleges for the first time (2,000 and 2,500 miles away).
I had a beautiful life for the past 29 years and now I need to keep going for my children, and just remember all the good times. Some days I cry less than others but I would not want to not grieve. I don't have problems expressing my grief in front of others but I don't think anyone wants to be around someone who is always moping.
I don't feel vengeful against the other driver, I view them as another victim, but self inflicted. I just hope she doesn't ever drive again and endanger anyone else's life. Most likely they will be prosecuted for aggravated vehicular homicide but that's out of my hands. I asked our congregation to pray for the other driver and have publicly expressed forgiveness since that's what I felt my wife would have wanted.
I found this paper very helpful as it concisely described many of the things I have experienced since loosing my wife a few days after Christmas last year. We were empty nesters and had just moved to a new community where I was hoping to finish off my career in a positive and meaningful way before I retired. Although not sudden, her passing was unexpected and I now find myself in a new community where I know very few people outside of work. Although no stranger to housework, I find the added household chores a bit tiring at times especially after a long day at work. Although I know I need to give myself to fully come to terms with what has happened, I can't help but look down the road and wonder what life will be like without her.
I found this article was helpful and especially the comments. I lost my wife from cancer nearly 2 years ago now and although we knew she was dying it was still very sudden and a total shock when she died.I have thought about remarriage but I have not wanted to go there. My wife of 24 years was my soul mate ,and it is difficult to want to go through the hoops of another relationship. I still feel as though she is on holiday or gone somewhere i still feel as though she is very close, I think that it is different for men than women it is more difficult for men to grieve properly than women I believe. The only people I find I can talk to are family members as my friends tend to leave you alone. I have found that I just want to be by myself as my friends treat me a bit differently now than before and i cannot handle them being uncomfortable around me, so i would rather steer clear of them.I have a daughter at home and she has been a huge help to me and I have to her, we needed each other at this time. We were very close family so maybe I have not come to terms with it, I am not sure. The best thing I did after my wife died was to go back to work after about 2 months, workmates are different they have not been involved in our family life so it was good to go back and do something productive than moping around the house.We are moving on my daughter has gone back to university but the sadness and loss hits home still.I miss her terribly and yes it would be good to be able to talk to someone about it but where we live in the country it is difficult to find that sort of support. People think you should be over it by now because you seem to be normal on the outside but inside you are crying and sometimes desperate to want to talk at times to someone, to pour your heart out would be good but we are too frightened or closed to do that or we cannot find anyone we can do that with not even family members, its not the manly thing to do, move on and get over it is a typical response. I have great memories which i try to dwell on and terrible memories as well my wife was far too young to die and what she went through in the last few months of her life is still very vivid in my mind. Life is not the same anymore, it is very lonely in bed she was always cuddled up to me now i share just her memories and its very cold and lonely at times. No more of her infectious laugh and her cross words at times, no more walking hand in hand down the beach, no more of her presence, no more inputting into our lives, no more ringing me up at work wanting to pick something up. No more...only memories.
Wow! Can I relate.
My wife suffered from a form of Muscular Dystrophy that was diagnosed about 30 years ago. The falls and broken bones had started before that time, so most of our marriage involved me taking care of her on and off for 30 years. Life became incredibly unfair to her. Eleven years ago, we built a wheelchair accessible house for her, and she benefited from it for about 6 years until it too became too unsafe. Eventually, throwing money at a problem empties the pockets and provides no benefits. The last 4 years of her young life (she died at the age of 55) were spent in a nursing home where she bravely mingled with much older people in various stages of physical and mental decline. Her eventual demise was always expected I guess. Still, you can't prepare yourself for that phone call from the nursing home at 4:00 a.m. to tell you that your wife has died.

While she was still at our home, and I was working (I eventually retired early to take care of her), we had the benefit of home care workers who took care of her physical needs, and often left a meal nearly prepared for when I got home. During this period, I learned to cook the basic foods, do laundry, and maintain the house both inside and out. I guess it was kind of a training ground for what was to come. What I wasn't prepared for was the lethargy that sometimes settles in, where I have no desire to cook or pay attention to the other household duties. Oddly enough, I find the activity of doing laundry relaxing, so the clothes and bedding are kept up.

My wife passed away at the end of June, and this is now early September. Thank goodness for golf! I have kept myself on a relatively even keel by playing several games a week with good male and female friends. But as the season nears the end, I'm frankly afraid of how I will react when I can't swing the clubs with friends to keep myself centered.

I'm startled sometimes how my emotions will suddenly spring to the surface, and I will unexpectedly be in tears at a thought, a spoken word, or a memory. Just when I thought I was getting it together. I still wear my wedding ring - partly because my knuckle has grown and I can't get it off, and partly because I'm not ready to consider another relationship. This is a couples world. I am most often excluded from couples events, and this is when it gets really lonely. The single guy is seen as the threat by married men. I expect the single woman is sometimes seen as the threat by married women.

Except for my Son and my Sister, I am unable to share or speak about my grief. Friends express support, but it's obvious that my situation tends to bring them down, and they will steer away from any discussions that would allow me to express my grief. I don't blame them for this - life is really too short for them too.

I hope time will eventually heal. This was helpful just to type this...
My darling wife of 43 years passed away May 10,2010. I guess I'm no different than most widowers since I can't cook or take care of flowers,etc. It is very difficult to exist day to day, and being 69 years old I am NOT interested in other women---period. I have a daughter, 9 grandchildren, and 3 great-grandchildren but all are too busy to even visit for an hour a month. This big house is paid for, I have no debts,and no social connections; my wife was my whole world. It's just me and my dog and he bites me now and then just to get my attention.
Every day is a consistant repitition of all the preceding days since my wife's death.
Yes, I'm depressed. But I smile when something happens that brings back memories of the wonderful life I once had.
My wife and soulmate of 36 years passed away on 2-08-2010, she was 54 years of age when diagnozed with cancer,I was in a fortunate position to be able to leave work and be her full-time carer for 2+ years before she passed away.Throughout our marriage we always had a close and loving relationship , but the last 2 years brought me even closer to this wonderful and loving human being , as I came to love and admire her tenacity and her courage during her illness.
My love for her hasn't diminished after her death, I am totally infatuated by her as I come to the realization of the terrible loss this has been to me, my children and my grandchildren.
It is now 15 months since her passing and I am still far from over her death and miss her terribly, both as my intimate companion and my friend.
In many ways it has become a much more lonely journey because now I try hard not to rely on my friends and family for emotional support.
We always did things together, so at this stage there is no hobby or leisure time activity that I can carry out that alleviates the pain I feel, because everything reminds me of her.

I did return to work 2 months after her death and it helped to a certain extent, but now I find that I am getting restless as I find more and more that work seems to be somewhat irrelevant.
Our plan was always to retire when I turned 60, so that we could pursue our passion for outback travel photography and camping.
I am pretty self-reliant and have no intention of re-marrying, but I do miss the complementary aspect of female companionship that my beloved wife had always provided.
I was always pretty fit, but since her illness and her death I started to suffer all sorts of health problems which I can only attribute to stress.
I am not sure where this rocky path will lead but I have a feeling that I have a long long way to go before I begin to feel as though I am anything like normal again (if ever!) Good luck for the future and regards to all fellow "travellers" who find themselves in the same unfortunate circumstances.
I was unexpectedly widowed in 1983 when my pilot husband died in a plane crash.(Much to my surprise, I remarried in 2006.)
I self-published a 70-page, 8 1/2 by 11-inch booklet for widows that has proven very popular. After talking about it for a few years, I finally started putting together a booklet for widowers. I'm including some of my widow booklet "info" in it, such as "What NOT to Say to a Grieving Spouse." (I recently finished interviewing a man who was widowed THREE times.)
I found the above article very interesting and was wondering if I could include parts of it in my widower booklet. Would that be possible? If so, how would the credit be worded, the author acknowledged, etc. If not, could I at least print some of the "User Contributions," with no names of course. It's always nice to know that you're not the only "slightly crazed" widow or widower at times! I would really appreciate hearing back about my request. With Warm Regards, Leanne Lippincott-Wuerthele
P.S. My booklet for widows is entitled, "Sisterhood of Sorrow," and my companion widower booklet is entitled, "Brotherhood of Brokenness." In spite of the "downer-sounding titles, they both contain a lot of uplifting articles and even some humor.

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